In-form Gervinho could be a tonic for Ivorian underachievers

By James Ezimoha

Much has been written about the disappointments of the highly-rated, star-studded, underachieving Elephants of Cote d’Ivoire.

This ‘Golden Generation’ can boast the likes of Manchester City’s midfield general, Yaya Toure, Liverpool strongman, Kolo Toure, Galatasary hitman, Didier Drogba and Lille goal poacher, Salomon Kalou, to mention just a few. Week in, week out these players perform wonders for their respective clubs across Europe, but have repeatedly failed to produce any sort of cohesion and progress when donning the orange jersey of Cote d’Ivoire in the context of a major international tournament.

The first (and last) time the Elephants hit gold was in the Africa Cup of Nations in Senegal in 1992 when they defeated the Black Stars of Ghana in the final on penalties.

Nigeria came third in that tournament, with the late Rashidi Yekini claiming the top scorer prize and Abedi Pele of Ghana named as the tournament’s MVP.

Looking at the names mentioned above, one can begin to get a sense of how long ago the country last celebrated their national team’s success in any major competition.

Gross Underachievement

They were runners up at the 2006 Cup of Nations and finished third in 1965, 1968, 1986 and 1994.  Most recently, they came close to ending their ‘curse’ when they reached the final of the AFCON in Gabon/Equatorial Guinea 2012. They came close but couldn’t seal a tournament victory, pressure and tension affecting the players during an excruciating penalty loss to Zambia—who claimed their first continental title at the expense of the much fancied ‘Golden Generation’.

Can the Elephants change their fortunes in major tournaments?

In South Africa 2013, they struggled for rhythm and cohesion during the group stage before eventually being dumped out by eventual winners, Nigeria.

Their ranking by FIFA as Africa’s best has in no way been reflected in their World Cup appearances and records. Compare them, for example, to Ghana who only lost a semi-final ticket following disappointing last-minute penalty failure on the part of Asamoah Gyan, in South Africa 2010.

From 1972-2002, the Ivorians failed to qualify for the tournament, but clinched their first World Cup ticket to Germany in 2006. Here, they failed to escape the group stage, winning only one of their three games.

Four years later, however, they arrived for South Africa 2010 with much pride and expectation from both their compatriots and the continent at large. Buoyed by the experience, skill and form present throughout the star-studded side, great things were expected of them, but, again they failed to get past the group stage. One victory, one draw and one loss was an underwhelming return for a team so crammed with elite talent.

A Final  Opportunity

The road to Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup was, for the Ivorians, a less dramatic voyage.

Having been seeded, they finished the second round of qualifiers comfortably atop their group, ahead of Morocco with 14 points.

The real test came in the shape of the Teranga Lions of Senegal, who also gave a good account of themselves en route to the play-offs. The Elephants almost completed the job at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan, where they secured a 3-1 victory.

The return leg was played in Casablanca, Morocco, due to stadium ban after rioting in Senegal, and it ended a goal apiece, with Salomon Kalou smashing Senegalese hearts with a late equaliser to send Cote d’ Ivoire to their third consecutive World Cup.

Lamouchi | Set for his first World Cup as a coach

Coach Sabri Lamouchi, who took the hot-seat in May 2012, will be looking not just to show up and tour around beautiful Brazil, but to improve on their underachievement in previous competitions.

One man who could make the difference between success and failure is Gervinho.

A New Hope

The Ivorian winger has appeared to be a man reborn since arriving at Roma from Arsenal in the summer. He is simply a joy to watch and one of the main performers in a Giallorossi side looking to challenge Juventus for the Scudetto and reach the final of the Coppa Italia.

After a successful three-year spell with Lille of France, where he won the Ligue 1 title and the French Cup, he was linked to, and was eventually signed by, English powerhouse Arsenal for a fee believed to be around £10.8 million.

It was a major move for the talented Ivorian. He was full of promise and the transfer was accompanied by a sizeable weight of expectation—after all, he was now rolling with the ‘big boys’ of European and English football.

He made his debut in a pre-season friendly match against FC Koln, in which he scored a brace within the first 15 minutes.

His Premier League debut for the Gunners wasn’t so brilliant as he was sent off for slapping Joey Barton. Gervinho managed only nine goals in 46 appearances for the Gunners. The much-anticipated progress and explosion was curtailed, in what appeared to be a mixed season, by a mixture of inconsistency, injuries, and lack of belief from the Arsenal boss, Arsene Wenger.

In the summer of 2013 he moved to Roma for a fee of eight million Euros, to be reunited with the coach that sold him to Arsenal from Lille, Rudi Garcia.

Since then, he has lit up the Stadio Olimpico with his blistering pace, cheeky dribbles, fine touch and exquisite finishing. What he was starved of at Arsenal, the faith and confidence of the manager, has been given to him in abundance by coach Garcia.

Reflecting on his fine form and change of attitude towards football with Sports Illustrated, Gervinho said: “The difference between Roma and Arsenal? The coach!”

Gervinho | A player reborn

His renaissance is pivotal to the ambitions of the Giallorossi as they remain in the hunt for the Italian double.

Gervinho has scored five goals in 17 appearances for Roma this season and looks to be enjoying his football again. 

For many of the ’Golden Genration’ the 2014 World Cup almost certainly represents the climactic occasion of their international careers. Coach Lamouchi can be confident that his Elephants, scattered across the world, will be in fine fettle and motivated to the max in Brazil.

One man he will surely be banking on to deliver the goods at this festival of football is the man on fire, Gervinho.